'Evolution of the Blues," now in a four-week run at the Kennedy Center, is a dated, confused and cloying revue with the heart of vaudeville and the soul of Las Vegas.
That this production should play Washington, D.C., the spiritual and geographical subject of Leadbelly's famous lament called "Bourgeois Blues," would be ironic if it were not so disappointing.
Wednesday night's performance suffered mightily from deafeningly unsubtle amplification, which projected artificiality onto an American art form in which personal expression and experience are the keys. The show itself, however, is the problem: a series of curiously unexpressive song-and-dance numbers linked by an inanely rhyming narration and stuck inexplicably in gospel.
"Evolution" begins with a gospel number entitled "Everything Started in the House of the Lord," runs hopefully through brief mentions of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Dinah Washington and a few others, and winds up with a reprise of its initial gospel stomper.
Despite the extraordinary possibilities, there is no show-stopper, and what should be at least small delights are frittered away. Gregg Burge's tap number was all but lost on Wednesday, since for some reason his tap shoes were inaudible. Elaine Beener's imitation of Dinah Washington's hit "What a Difference a Day Makes," seemed belted out by the giant amplifiers on stage, rather than by either Washington or Beener.
"One O'Clock Jump," a jitterbug by Homer Bryant, Garmaine Edwards, Daryl Richardson and Eartha D. Robinson, is a lively and effective number, but as such, out of place.
"Evolution" was apparently first put together for the Monterey Jazz Festival of 1960 by the respected jazz vocalist Jon Hendricks, and has lived on. Hendricks if not on hand for this production, but if he were, he might be asked:
How can an evolution of the blues not treat its progeny -- among them rock, pop, the white folk music of Bob Dylan and company? Why is gospel presented as beginning and ending, when in fact the blues and gospel, though sprung from common experience, were antithetical during most of this history? Where is Ray Charles here? And B.B.King? Where is the harmonica of Sonny Terry? Where are the battered guitars, the rough chords, the plaintive laments and celebrations of rural black working men?
This evolution is mostly urban, and the way of Harlem is depicted in several African spear dances that are directly descended from the ed Sullivan show. Blues music is music of great dignity, but there is very little dignity here.
Only once, near the program's end, does the cast turn briefly to a blues song in its most familiar, influential and infinitely variable form: Good morning blues, blues how do you do Good morning blues, blues how do you do I just came here to have a few words with you.
But then we are suddenly back to gospel, with co-hosts (for this is much like a television special) Ernie Banks and Larry Marshall in church robes again.
The curious fact is that any early recording of Elvis Presley says more about the evolution of the blues than the two-hour show now playing in the Kennedy Center's Opera House.